The award-winning founder brings on the real-world relevance.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Nepris connects educators and learners with a network of industry professionals, virtually, bringing real-world relevance and career exposure to all students. Nepris also provides a skills-based volunteering platform for organizations to extend education outreach, and build their brand among the future workforce. Sabari Raja, Co-Founder & CEO, has as strong track record in building and launching successful education technology products in markets around the globe. Prior to starting Nepris, she worked for 15 years with Education Technology division of Texas Instruments to lead product and content strategy, publisher relations, business development, partnership and alliance ecosystem for new edtech products. Sabari has an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from India, Masters in Computer Science from Louisiana State University and graduated Beta Gamma Sigma with an Executive MBA degree from Cox School of Business, SMU. With Binu Thayamkery, Co-Founder & CTO, a seasoned software professional who is passionate about technology, entrepreneurship and agile practices, she built Nepris to ensure students were aware of and connected to the larger working world out there on a personal level. Nepris is a Cool Tool Award Finalist for “Best STEM Solution” and won The EdTech Trendsetter Award (“EdTech Company Setting a Trend” category) as part of The EdTech Awards 2022 from EdTech Digest.
What prompted you to first get involved with education and technology?
My first job out of college was at Texas Instruments (TI) Education technology group where I started as a programmer working on code for the graphing calculators. I learned everything about edtech while working for TI for 14 years.
What prompted you to found your company—what problem were you trying to solve?
I grew up on a rural farm in South India and went to boarding school at the age of 5. I had absolutely no exposure beyond the farm and school. My inherited network was very limited and my social capital nonexistent. Many decades later and oceans apart, in the U.S, I still see the same problem, rural students and underserved students have no idea what opportunities and career paths exist, they start off with a disadvantage. You can’t be what you can’t see!
‘Many decades later and oceans apart, in the U.S, I still see the same problem, rural students and underserved students have no idea what opportunities and career paths exist, they start off with a disadvantage.’
We chose to solve this problem by using technology to connect industry professionals to students, virtually to bring relevance to learning and in the process bring exposure to every student. We envisioned a classroom where industry engagement is not once a year during career days but every day in your math, science, ELA and social studies classrooms.
How have you managed your growth, what’s been key?
It has not been easy trying to build a business where change needs to happen at the classroom level, it was a much longer timeframe to get from early adopters to scale. Today we have statewide and large district adoptions and are growing rapidly. There are many factors that contributed to this, but first and foremost is having a co-founder and CTO (Binu Thayamkery) who subscribed to the lean development model of building products by consistently taking customer feedback, early investors who took the risk and invested in the vision, mission and the team when there was $0 in revenue, and most importantly early employees who made the sacrifices with us and were willing to do whatever it took to get us through to the next stage. Our growth was also aligned to tailwinds from nearly 40 states making career readiness their top priority, researchers like Julia Freeland Fisher (Christensen Institute) and Gates Foundation publishing their book/whitepaper emphasizing the importance of preparing students for the future of work and more funding like Perkins directed towards CTE and work-based learning.
Congrats on your big win from The EdTech Awards! What does an honor like this mean for you and your team?
Thank you very much. We are truly grateful for this honor. Sometimes we get so busy with the day-to-day operations of running the business that we don’t come up for air. This award is like a breath of fresh air as it reenergizes and motivates everyone on the team, helps gain more credibility with our customers and it reinforces the fact that we are on the right path to scaling student impact.
‘This award is like a breath of fresh air as it reenergizes and motivates everyone on the team, helps gain more credibility with our customers and it reinforces the fact that we are on the right path to scaling student impact.’
What key lessons from your past inform your current success?
People are the key to the success of any company and that we need to take the time to listen, develop and celebrate the small accomplishments of everyone along the way.
As entrepreneurs, we need to be ready to pivot from our ideas as needed. Willingness to listen, take feedback from experienced people and promptly adapt to changing market needs is a must.
Being self-aware to know what my strengths and weaknesses are and to ask for help when I don’t know how to do it.
We don’t have to compromise our mission in order to build a viable business. Large scale impact happens at the intersection of purpose and profit.
It’s been a wild ride these last few years. Broadly speaking, what is the state of education today?
Education today is still focused primarily on academic achievement and not necessarily about developing the whole child to become a happy, healthy and successful adult. While we are seeing early adopter educators and districts working towards integrating career exposure, life skills and problem-based learning into their core curriculum, this has still not become mainstream. Unless the accountability metrics change at the highest level, this kind of sea change in what students learn and experience in their classrooms and how this impacts their college, career and life readiness (CCLR) will not see scalable impact.
What’s tech’s role in education, and how about your company’s efforts with this?
Technology can be a great equalizer. It can bring equity of access, connect communities, expand exposure and help scale student reach and impact. Our mission has been to build technology solutions to remove geographic barriers, to connect students to people, places and opportunities that they never knew existed. We are helping students acquire real world skills while expanding their occupational identity and social capital.
‘Our mission has been to build technology solutions to remove geographic barriers, to connect students to people, places and opportunities that they never knew existed.’
Any advice for edtech startup founders or for other leaders in edtech?
On average school districts purchase over 1,400 edtech tools (Source: Learn Platform) and with teacher shortages, rising mental health challenges, student health and safety concerns, this is too many tools that the teachers don’t have time to use. As edtech founders, we need to make an effort to include the voice of the customer and to meet teachers where they are. This may be taking a hard look at the problem that we are solving and for whom, redefining the user experience, reinventing professional development, empowering them to leverage parents, employers and other stakeholders in the community, etc. We want to be one less thing for teachers to do not one more thing on their already overloaded plate.
What’s ahead for education—trends to watch, and any you are setting?
Career Readiness starting at elementary.
Career readiness embedded into the general education classroom while academic content in the CTE classroom.
Engaging the parent community.
Community engagement; everyone in the community owns the responsibility to develop the student to be future ready, not just the teachers.
Experiential Learning; opportunities for students to do work based learning, apprenticeships, internships etc.
Social Emotional Learning.
Challenge-Based, or Problem-Based learning.
At Nepris, we are very much in the midst of all these trends, working towards integrating industry into the K-5 classrooms, engaging parents as professionals to bring career exposure and awareness, connecting local employers to local schools and providing virtual work-based learning opportunities, infusing industry into math, science, ELA and social studies classrooms to bring relevance to learning.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com